Can We improve How We Play Status Games? Here are 8 Ideas

Can We improve How We Play Status Games? Here are 8 Ideas February 1, 2022

Can we improve how we play status games? Yes! This post offers 8 ideas for doing so.

This post builds on the last three segments of the series in which we are looking at significant insights from Will Storr’s recent book The Status Game: On Social Position and How to Use It.

Part 1 — We all play the status game. How do you play?

Part 2 — Status Games are Inherently Groupish

Part 3 — The Insatiable Search for Status


Let’s begin by observing a basic human pattern, which Storr labels “copy-flatter-conform.”

First, people copy those around them who have some degree of positive status. Such persons offer us clues about the value of the group, what is acceptable and what is not.

Second, we attempt to build friendships with people of status. So, we resort to flattery. In this instance, flattery does not necessarily have a negative connotation. It could simply refer to the currying favor or trust with someone of high status in the group. Though “flattery” has negative connotations, it is not an inherently malicious goal but natural in all groups.

Third, we conform to the group’s norms, particularly as seen by those who seem to be exemplars within the community. This three-step sequence is descriptive, not prescriptive. We see this in child development and in every group we belong to.

For anyone who has acclimated to another culture, this pattern is self-evident. Storr gives an example of how even idealistic law students slowly compromise when they integrate into the subculture of their law firm. He writes,

“their indoctrination will be delicate but emphatic: ‘the culture will pressure you in many subtle ways to replace your values with the systems.’… [Young lawyers] begin to admire things they did not admire before, ashamed of things they were not ashamed of before, find it impossible to live without things they lived without before.” (127).

Two things are worth noting here.

1. When we speak about “culture,” we need to remember that we belong to countless subcultures. Too often, we merely think of national culture as “culture.”

2. Just as a subculture can indoctrinate us to our harm, so also subcultures can contribute to our good, shaping our character in positive ways, helping us to admire things we did not admire before, and be ashamed of things we were not ashamed of it before.

Eight Practical Suggestions

So, how do we better play the status game? I’ll briefly offer a few suggestions drawn from Storr’s book.[1]

First, develop certain aspects of your personality. Recall from part one what are the three types of status games mentioned in the book: dominance games, success games, and virtue games. Storr notes “three dimensions for successful play: warmth, sincerity, and competence” (301). He adds,

“When we are warm, we imply we are not going to use dominance; when sincere, that we’re going to play fairly; when competent, that we are going to be valuable to the game itself, both in its own battles for status, and to individual players who might learn from us” (302).

Second, give status away. He says, “It’s easy to forget we have status to give, that costs nothing and it never runs out… Allowing others to feel statusful makes it more likely they’ll accept our influence” (303).
Third, make yourself immune to many status games by remembering that we all have multiple social identities, depending on sphere and relationship. Our diversity or complexity density reminds us that we are more than who we are in any single social context.

Fourth, make yourself genuinely helpful and useful by looking to the needs of others. Be a blessing!

Fifth, reconsider the many issues that we speak about with moral indignation and intellectual certainty. Storr writes,

“Smart phones and social media have placed global virtue games inside our pockets. Winning this form of status is now more convenient than ever” (306).

Six, understand that not every issue is a simple matter of right and wrong, winners and losers. Countless issues are complex and require us to make trade-offs to satisfy the varied needs of different groups.

Seven, find ways to express your individuality and be original within the larger bounds of social acceptability. It is an American virtue, not a Christian one, to be different for difference’s sake regardless of the cost in consequence.

Eighth, recognize how vain and temporary are many of our status games. They might serve a purpose in a given season of life, but we outgrow them and recognize that many things matter more to us than do those games. Throughout life, the symbols that drive the status game or ever-changing. To this, Storr concludes,

I remind myself that these symbols we chase are often no less ridiculous than [chasing] giant yams [as a means of status] and that none of us are competing with everyone in the world, no matter how much feel that way. (309-10)

He then offers a sobering and hopeful reminder:

I believe we can all take consolation in the knowledge that nobody ever gets there, not the superstars, the presidents, the geniuses or the artists we gaze up at in envy and awe. That promised land is a mirage. It’s a myth.” (310)

[1] Although Storr doesn’t state his convictions explicitly, numerous comments suggest he writes from an atheist or agnostic perspective. Accordingly, I take the kernel of truth within his “rules of status game” to suggest several applications.

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